Gema, voice and mastery for love
It is difficult to give Gema Corredera an interview that covers, in fair measure, her rich and multifaceted artistic career. At the age of seven, she took the stage and never left it again; from her debut at the Hubert de Blanck Theater in her native Havana, as part of the children's musical workshop of Teatro Estudio, directed by professor Leopoldina Núñez Lacret, to the present day. It has been several decades of successful performances in Europe, the United States, Latin America and Asia, sharing forums with artists such as Alejandro Sanz, Andy Montañez, Angelique Kidjo, Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Martirio, Jarabe de Palo, Lenine, Ketama, Roberto Carcassés, Pablo Milanés, Tito Puente, Willy Chirino, Yosvany Terry, Meme Solís, Aymée Nuviola, Albita and Marta Valdés, among others.
Gema María Corredera Saborit had already begun her classical guitar studies at the age of 11, but she discovered jazz shortly after, when her teacher recognized in her voice the characteristic scattings of this musical genre. He graduated from the National School of Music in Cuba (ENA) specializing in classical guitar, and entered the career of Musicology at the Higher Institute of Arts in Havana (ISA). During this stage he focused on studying contemporary Cuban composition, national folkloric music, and Cuban music.—especially the rumba—classical composers, and studied at the same time bel canto, with Professor Carmen Godoy.
As she said, 1990 was a very important year in her youth: in May her daughter Camila was born and that same summer the great composer Marta Valdés invited her to join a peña she was organizing at the Casona de Línea, because she considered that the new performer "possessed the gift of discovering in music secret paths unknown to the author himself". In this context, the duo Gema y Pavel was born, with which, a biennium later, she began her world tour.
Tell me about your departure from Cuba in 1992. When you left with Pavel, were you already thinking of settling in Spain? In an interview you mentioned "the honey and the bile of emigration". What were those early days like, musically and, above all, on a daily basis?
I left in 1992, on a tour of the group Teatro Estudio, directed by Raquel Revuelta. We didn't plan it, we simply had the opportunity to stay a few more months and make presentations on the sidelines of the group and the play that took us to Spain. Once the decision to settle in Madrid was made, we returned to Havana for a few months and started a recording project with which to debut in Madrid. In the end, that album was never presented, but we did begin a definitive stage of artistic and personal search and maturation, which is reflected in each of the albums we made.
Undoubtedly, the early days were difficult. We played in small venues and it was almost two years before we obtained the Spanish residency permit. Personally, I felt sad away from my little girl, who remained in Cuba, cared for by my family, with whom I had always grown very close. To make matters worse, I could not get used to the cold.
However, the wonderful thing about emigration was the possibility of recording albums, starting a life of concerts, international tours, festivals and many musical and artistic projects. The doors of Europe, Asia and America opened for our music.
It has been customary for decades that artists who have emigrated are not broadcast in the media, much less on television... When did you return to Cuba? Were you able to perform right away? How long has it been since you went?
I returned to Cuba in 1995. That first time I was there for a couple of months, working on a record production, because since we landed in Spain we were determined to make known the generation of singer-songwriters closest to us; artists with whom we had shared in peñas and concerts. We convinced the producer —with whom we publish [the album] Trampas del tiempoand for whom we made the productions of To María Teresa Vera and Words, with Omara Portuondo—We decided to record a collective album of that group of young singer-songwriters, then living in Havana. So it was that we returned to Cuba to record the album Hidden Havana. Later, the group became known as Habana Abierta.
The last time I sang in Cuba was in 2016, after 15 years of absence, and I went with my show. Beyond music, thanks to an initiative of Marta Valdés with Casa de las Américas, supported by María Elena Vinueza, director of the Music Department of that institution. I was able to sing and receive the affection of the people, in an unforgettable encounter.
How much did they learn, musically and humanly, during their years in Spain?
I met and fell in love with the culture of all the Spains that coexist in that geography. I met friends who became family. My daughter grew up in Madrid. I was filled with influences from flamenco and copla. I learned to defend the music I believe in and I brought to the stage a previously unknown way of making Cuban music. I grew as a teacher and began my life as a lecturer, producer and arranger.
Of course, you were very well prepared musically and culturally. Had you studied classical guitar with the interest of becoming a concert guitarist? And why musicology? Did you practice it at some point? What has it meant in your career?
The guitar is a perfect instrument to play and to accompany. It was the first instrument I had in my hands and it fascinated me. I always wanted to be a singer but, at least when I was a child, if you wanted to study music at the conservatory, you had to choose an instrument. I chose the guitar, without hesitation. Since I was a child I have been very restless and eager to learn about the origin and history of music. I like to research, read and unravel. And musicology offers all that. When I went to study at ISA, I decided to choose a career that would broaden my view towards music in general, the analysis and history of this wonderful art, which I am so passionate about.
In this way, I have given lectures and master classes in various universities in the United States and Europe on the bolero, the Cuban clave, Cuban songs and rumba. Also, when undertaking a musical project, the musicologist that I am shapes the concept, analyzes and defines the repertoire, the sonority, the instrumentation, the arrangements and the musicians with whom I must develop the work.
Those of us who knew Leopoldina Núñez know that she was more than a guitar teacher, that she left her mark on more than one generation of artists, she was someone who provided a place for creative encounters. How did you come to her classes? And to Teatro Estudio? Tell us also about your proximity to the National Folkloric Ensemble.
I grew up in El Vedado, behind the rehearsal rooms of the Conjunto Folklorico Nacional de Cuba. Listening to them all day until late at night, for years, familiarized me with rumba and the different genres of Afro-Cuban music. Undoubtedly, my personality was permeated by that way of singing and syncopating.
It also happened that my parents' house was just a few blocks from the Hubert de Blanck Theater, where Leopoldina created the Teatro Estudio children's workshop, with the support of Raquel Revuelta. We went there with a little musical group we had formed in elementary school. As soon as I arrived at the workshop, Leo took me by the hand... and that's when it all began.
Later, despite having many personal tools to launch yourself as a soloist, either as a singer or as a concert guitarist, you decided to form a duo. Why?
The duo emerged organically at Marta's request, in her musical peña. I had already recorded a lot of music for film and television, I had done some concerts and shows as a soloist, and I was part of Sergio Vitier's group Oru. With Marta, under the protection of those Saturdays in her peña, I began to sing with Pavel. Little by little, without realizing it, we had made a repertoire and we presented ourselves as a duo. I didn't think about it, it just happened and it became something very important.
In a short sentence, please tell me how you remember or would define:
Leopoldina Núñez: "A teacher in every sense of the word. She taught me the path of music, literature and art. From her I took professionalism, love for teaching and artistic ethics".
Marta Valdés: "A musical mother to me. She gave me character and strength to defend my music".
Pavel Urquiza: "Tireless companion of music and emigration. In my opinion, the most complete singer-songwriter of my generation: musician, producer, alchemist".
Teresita Fernández: "The composer and troubadour of three generations of children in our country.. Juglar, a loving and strong woman, with whom I shared songs and stages, and from whom I keep many precious songs".
Pablo Milanés: "One of the greatest Cuban artists of all times. Innovative, committed to Cuban music and the new generations, great if ever there was one".
After almost a decade in Spain, what made you decide to relocate to Miami? Did you find this change easy? How convenient was it for the expansion of your career??
I lived 16 years in Spain. But Miami has been another great school for me. On an artistic level I have been fortunate to navigate many stages in the city and I have also had a myriad of experiences, alongside artists I admire and respect.
Before embarking on my first solo album, Shedding LightI spent a long time singing live in Puerto Rico, New York and Spain. I began to meet artists and collaborate with musicians in Miami. Step by step, I was shaping the repertoire and evaluating with whom I would work my first album as a soloist. I did it with the excellent Cuban musician Yosvany Terry, who was in charge of arrangements and musical direction. Before recording, we rehearsed with the musicians and tested the sonority before a New York audience.
What do you prefer out of all your facets: being a performer, giving concerts, giving master classes, being a producer, creating soundtracks? What are your favorite stages, the big ones or the intimate ones?
I like all stages. My great vocation is singing, recording, giving concerts, mixing with different artists of different styles. Life has taken me through the paths of music production, soundtracks for film and theater. Each stage has its own challenges. In a large event I feel loved, joyful, powerful. In intimate settings I feel embraced, eloquent, expressive.
I am always proud to say that my second great vocation is teaching. In fact, my friends have affectionately called me "teacher" for many years now. I started teaching at the age of 15, when I was still a guitar student at the ENA. Even while I was studying musicology at ISA, I combined my studies with teaching as a student assistant in several subjects. Thus, I already have almost 30 years of experience as a pedagogue, instructor and lecturer.
How did you work on the great album Feeling Marta?
I went to Havana and spent ten days interviewing Marta, talking with her, listening to her new songs and revisiting together some pieces from previous eras. We made a list of about 25 songs. She was kind enough to write me the scores of the songs, one by one, in her own handwriting; a treasure of my life.
When I returned to Miami, I continued analyzing the works until I was left with 12 songs. Xiomara Almaguer, Eddy Levy and Jeanne Habib, executive producers of the album, were betting on an intimate, chamber album. So I decided to work with only three instruments: piano, bass and drums. Once the repertoire was decided, I asked Roberto Carcassés to do the arrangements and musical direction, as he is a very talented artist. He could contribute a lot to the songs and to the sound I wanted to achieve: contemporary and sophisticated. We did all the pre-production over the Internet and a few months later he, Yissy García (drums) and Carlitos Rios (bass) flew to Miami to record the album. We recorded everything in less than a week. By the time I was mastered, I decided to include two more topics: Without going further and It is not necessary to (together with the great Spanish artist Martirio). This is how it finally turned out Feeling Martawith 14 songs.
What did the GLAAD award entail?
GLAAD is the world's largest LGBTIQ+ media advocacy organization. The GLAAD award is a recognition of high artistic standards and is given to artists from across the United States, highlighted by one or more works, with LGBTIQ+ themes. It was a wonderful surprise. I was fortunate to be featured for the music video of Without going further, from Feeling Marta.
What are your current plans, are you working on a new album?
I am immersed in several projects at the same time. I'm working on a new album with original songs, for one thing. I have almost finished the first one and I hope to release the single soon. On the other hand, as a producer and singer, I'm working on an album entitled Dressed by the seadedicated to the poetry of Alfonsina Storni. It is an album of fusion between flamenco and Cuban filin, with the outstanding Andalusian guitarist José Luis de la Paz. I am also moving forward in a project with the great Cuban musician and dear friend Lázaro Horta, recreating between the two emblematic songs of the Cuban and Latin American repertoire. And there is the production of the debut album of the young Puerto Rican singer-songwriter Ariana Lorén.
At the same time, I continue with my voice lessons. I have just created 1Vox Foundation which aims, through music and, specifically, through the sung and spoken voice, to bring children and adults with special needs closer to the outside world, and to broaden their social relationships.
To conclude, how do you select your repertoire? What do you ask of a song?
If a song catches my attention, either because of the lyrics, the story it tells and/or the melody, I would want to do it. I like many types of songs, but I know that not all songs are for me. When it comes to singing, I will choose the piece that I really like and feel I can bring something beautiful to it.
A version of this interview was originally published at Caritate Magazineissue January/March 2023.